Public Relations: The Fundamental Premise

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It seems difficult to believe at the dawn of the Modern day, that there exists
a serious discipline with so many diverse, partial, incomplete and limited interpretations of the mission. Here, merely a sampling of professional opinion
about what public relations is all about:

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* actually talking to the media on behalf of a client.

* selling a product or service, service or idea.

* reputation management.

* engineering of perception

* doing good and getting credit for it.

* attracting credit for an organization for doing good and limiting the downside when it does bad

Nevertheless there is an element of truth in this definitions, most focus on only part of what advertising is capable of doing, kind of a halfway fundamental premise. Worse, they don't answer the question, as to what end do they lead? Few even mention the actual end-game -- behavior modification -- the goal against which all pr activity must be charged.

Here's my opinion in regards to the fundamental premise of publicity: People act on their perception of the facts leading to behaviors about which something can be carried out. When public relations creates, changes or reinforces that opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-desired-action people whose behaviors affect the organization, the public relations mission is accomplished.

Even though we feel certain in regards to the fundamental premise of pr, maybe we should take another look? As if we are wrong, at the best we miss out on public relation's enormous benefits. At worst, we can easily damage ourselves and our organizations.

The primary premise suggests that, to assist achieve true competitive advantage, management must insure that it is public relations investment is committed straight away to influencing the organization's most important audiences. And THEN insure the tacticians efficiently prepare and communicate messages which will influence those audience perceptions and, thus, behaviors. For non-profits or public sector entities, the emphasis can be on achieving the organization's primary objectives.

Is there a alternative when we see some advertising people managing to undergo their entire careers without a firm grasp from the fundamental premise of publicity? Their responses to crises, or to requests for well thought-out answers to public relations problems, reveal a critical lack of understanding. They confuse the fundamental function of public relations with many tactical parts that comprise the whole, such as publicity, crisis management or employee relations. Understandably, believe that unsure in approaching pr problems, then uncertain about what counsel to give their clients. Many, relying on career-long misconceptions about pr, forge ahead anyway advising the consumer ineffectively sometimes with damaging, or even dangerous counsel.

In seeking an answer to this challenge to understanding, we can't rely solely on tactics or even emulate the artillery training commander who tells his student gunners "point your guns in different direction and fire once you feel like it!"

Instead, equally as that artillery commander teaches his newbie gunners to carefully analyze their target and just what they must do to reach it, so it's with public relations.

Good opportunity resides with the get-go where we really could make certain our public relations students CLEARLY view the basic premise of advertising at the beginning of their careers. And they have an equally clear idea of the organizational context -- business, non-profit or public sector -- in which they will be expected to apply what they have learned, and in that they must operate successfully.

Bushy-tailed and bright with promise, the modern generation of publicity professionals must learn that their employer/client wants us to make use of our special skills in a way that helps achieve her or his business objectives. And that no matter what strategic plan we create to solve a problem, no matter what tactical program we put in place, at the end of the day we must modify somebody's behavior if we are to earn our money.

The good thing is, when the behavioral changes become apparent, and satisfy the program's original behavior modification goal, three benefits appear.
One, people relations program can be a success. Two, by experienceing this behavioral goal we set at the start, we are using a dependable and accurate publicity performance measurement. And three, when our "reach, persuade and move-to-desired-action" efforts develop a visible modification inside the behaviors of those people we want to influence, we are using public relations' special strengths with their very best advantage.

Budding professionals ought to learn at the beginning of their careers that most employers and industry is not primarily interested in our ability to fraternize together with the media, communicate or paint images. Nor is he especially fascinated with our efforts to identify target audiences, set public relations goals and strategies, write persuasive messages, select communications tactics, et al.

What the employer/client invariably DOES want can be a change in the behaviors of certain key audiences which leads directly to the achievement of the business objectives. Hence, the emphasis in this post on careful planning for altered key audience perceptions and modified behaviors.

So in retrospect quality preparation and also the degree of behavioral change it produces, defines failure or success for a public relations program. Done right, when public relations leads to modified behaviors among categories of people vitally important to any organization, we could be referring to nothing less than its survival.

But why, young people, do we feel so strongly concerning the fundamental premise of publicity? Because some of us have discovered from leaders from the field, from mentors and from long years of experience that there are only 3 ways a public relations effort can impact behavior: create opinion where it won't exist, reinforce existing opinion or change that opinion. Not surprising that the process where those goals are realized is called public relations. While behavior may be the goal, and a host of communications tactics include the tools, our strategy is the leverage furnished by public opinion.

We also learned the hard method in which when your employer/client starts hunting for a return on his or her public relations investment, it becomes clear on the go that the goal Has to be the kind of change in the behaviors of key stakeholders that leads directly to achieving business objectives.

Also i believe that we should advise our newcomers if their employers/clients ever say they aren't getting the behavior changes they purchased, they're probably wasting the money they're spending on public relations.

Here's why I say that. Once again, we know that people act on their thought of the facts, that those perceptions result in certain behaviors, which something can be done about those perceptions and behaviors that leads to achieving the employer/client's business objectives.

Meaning s/he really CAN establish the desired behavior change up front, then insist upon getting that result before pronouncing the population relations effort profitable.

In other words, the way to increase their comfort level about their public relations investment, is to be sure that investment produces the behavior modification the trainer told us they wanted at the start of the program,

That way, they are fully aware they're getting their money's worth.

I might be remiss here easily omitted reference to the difficulties those new to the field will encounter in looking to evaluate public relations performance. Often, they are going to find themselves using highly-subjective, very limited and only partially applicable performance judgments. Included in this, inquiry generation, story content analysis, gross impressions and even advertising value equal to the publicity space obtained.

The primary reason for this sorry situation is the lack of affordable public opinion survey products that could demonstrate conclusively how the public relations perception and behavioral goal set at the outset of the program was, actually, achieved. Usually, opinion surveys adequate for the job of establishing definitely that a behavioral goal was achieved, are cost-prohibitive, often far over the overall cost of the pr program itself!

However, the younger generation, all is not lost. Obviously, some behavioral changes are immediately visible, like customers returning to showrooms, environmental activists abandoning plant gate protests or a rapidly improving job retention rate. We follow less obvious behavioral change by monitoring indicators that directly impact behavior like comments in community meetings and business speeches, local newspaper, television and radio editorials, emails from market members and thought-leaders, and public statements by people in politics and local celebrities.

We even shadow our personal communications tactics trying to monitor their affect audience perception -- tactics including face-to-face meetings, Internet ezines and email, hand-placed newspaper and magazine feature articles and broadcast appearances, special consumer briefings, news releases, announcement luncheons, onsite media interviews, facility tours, brochures and also special events like promotional contests, financial road shows, awards ceremonies, trade conventions, celebrity appearances and open houses -- each built to impact individual perception and behavior.

And yes it does work -- we ARE able to demonstrate an effect on perception and behavior to the employer/client. But affordable professional opinion/behavioral surveys will be the best solution. Clearly, solving this problem remains a major challenge for both the public relations and survey disciplines.

Yet another piece of advice for the soon-to-be public relations professional. As we start to achieve proficiency in public relations, an action pathway to success also sets out to appear:

* know the problem

* identify target audiences

* set the public relations goal

* set the population relations strategy

* prepare persuasive messages

* select and implement key communications tactics

* monitor progress

* along with the end game? Satisfy the behavior modification goal.

I am hoping these remarks bring about a broadened knowledge of the fundamental function of pr in our organizations, especially among our entry-level colleagues. In particular, how it can strengthen relationships with those important teams of people -- those target audiences, those "publics" whose perceptions and behaviors might help or hinder the achievement of our own employer/client's business objectives.

A last thought for those entering or planning to enter the field of publicity -- you'll know you've arrived at each public relations end game if the changes in behaviors become truly apparent through feedback such as increased numbers of positive media reports, encouraging supplier and thought-leader comment, and increasingly upbeat employee and community chatter.

In other words, sound strategy along with effective tactics leads straight away to the bottom line -- altered perceptions, modified behaviors, plus a public relations homerun.